The Wriedt stuff?

Paula Wriedt has spoken out in public for the first time after the events surrounding her dismissal from Tasmania’s State Parliament last year.

The article in the Weekend Australian magazine (13-14 June, 2009) was promoted on the front page of the newspaper as an exposé of how “sexism, stigma and scandal destroyed my career: Paula Wriedt.” Perhaps these words were not Wriedt’s choice; the title of the magazine article, “Back from the Brink”, was more accurate.  

Paula Wriedt and I are around the same age; we are both daughters of former politicians. I also lived in Tasmania from 1995-2000, when Wriedt was active as a minister in the State Cabinet.

I seriously doubt that sexism destroyed Wriedt’s career. First of all, there’s the claim that she fought her way up: “It was the first time a number of young women stood for parliament and I wasn’t sure how seriously we’d be received … For a while, the answer seemed to be, not very.”

Women were first allowed to vote in Tasmania in 1904 and could stand for election from 1922 (three very game women stood that year, and none of them was elected). The first woman was elected to the Legislative Council in 1948. The longest-serving woman in state parliament, Phyllis Benjamin MLC, was there for 24 years. The first woman cabinet member, Gillian James, was appointed in 1980. The first woman party leader, Christine Milne, led the Greens from 1993-1998.

Women of this calibre certainly experienced sexism, and probably on a grand scale. But for the most part, they didn’t say anything about it because they were too busy getting on with their job of representing their electorates.

Wriedt was first elected in Franklin in 1996 with a whopping 24,986 votes (42.7%). The Labor candidate in the 1992 election had only managed 19,946 (33.8%). Wriedt’s count went up in 1998 to 26,888 (45.7%); in 2002 to 31,303; (51.7%) and only fell back to 30,166 (47.2%) in 2006. In other words, a huge number of people thought Wriedt was worth voting for, and kept voting for her, come what may.

And what about Wriedt’s privileged Party background as the daughter of a former federal Labor minister? It didn’t hurt. In 1998, Jim Bacon appointed her Minister for Education – with only two years’ previous parlimentary experience, and the youngest ever female member of Cabinet in Tasmania. It’s hard to see sexism or ageism at work here.

Wriedt was clearly considered trustworthy and competent by her peers and superiors. When she lost support in her electorate in 2006 over her criticism of her own government’s educational policies, she was not exiled to the back bench, but was given another Cabinet post.

I will not speak here of the post-natal depression, extra-marital affair, marriage breakdown and self-harming episode, except to say that feminism prides itself on being about equality of opportunity and the right to make choices. Sadly, feminism can be short-winded on the responsibilities accompanying the making of choices, especially poor choices.

Male politicians can have their careers derailed by poor choices: John Profumo, Eliot Spitzer and Rudy Giuliani, for starters. In this article, Wriedt on several occasions says that she regrets aspects of her behaviour, and it’s a pity that this didn’t make it to the Australian’s headlines instead. “I made poor choices: Paula Wriedt”.

Maiden speeches are an easy target, but here are two extracts from Wriedt’s.

I realised how lucky I was compared to many people. I started to study politics at university, and learning the theory and working in a practice opened up my eyes to this huge gap of reality between what was supposed to happen and what was actually happening.” 

I make a plea to everyone sitting in this House today, to try and refrain from the traditional mud slinging and name calling that has become a part of life in this House. Let us clean up our act so that the credibility of politicians can be restored in the eyes of the community.

Anecdotally, a common cause of depressive illness is that people have difficulty accepting the gap between “what was supposed to happen” and “what was actually happening”. Wriedt is correct when she describes how one’s colleagues melt away when faced with mental illness. But her alienation came at the end of a long meltdown, and again, it’s hard to blame the derailing of Wriedt’s career on the stigma associated with mental illness.

Two things: 1) actions have consequences, and 2) you can’t have it all. When an illness like depression strikes, nine times out of ten it’s a warning to get out of a particular situation. One of the dangers of choosing to take antidepressant medication is that it makes it possible for a person to remain in a toxic situation almost indefinitely, with potentially appalling outcomes for their mental and physical health.

Wriedt wonders aloud if it’s too soon for her to be speaking out on these issues. Perhaps it is, and when more time has elapsed, she may see her dismissal as a lucky – and life-saving – break.

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